Almeida Theatre, London – until 25 May 2019
Some years ago, leaving a particularly slow and uninspiring Chekhov performance in Yorkshire (never mind which play, spare the blushes) I heard a weary man saying to his partner: “Eh! They were well overdue for that revolution!” Which is not how you should feel after one of the master’s plays.
This one – like several others – is about household claustrophobia, unfulfilled passion, mutual irritation, disappointment and the fact that in some lives only stoicism and resignation will do. Yet Anton Chekhov’s humour, sense of character and artful observation of human ridiculousness can carry you beyond depression and leave you – even in the case of an Uncle Vanya! – oddly uplifted.
But it can misfire. This – adapted into nicely rendered modern demotic speech by Cordelia Lynn – is directed again by Rebecca Frecknall, whose plangent, rather beautiful Summer and Smoke won two Oliviers – one for best actress for Patsy Ferran (here again, as the eldest sister Olga). Only one piano this time rather than a crescent of nine, but the director chooses the same spare, open staging, beginning with 18 mismatched chairs and the cast in a mimetic-balletic sequence as if at a strange funereal ritual.
Appropriate enough, since the three sisters and their brother are marking, on young Irina’s birthday, the anniversary of their father’s death. But this is a play about households, the grating ennui of trapped women and the hostility that grows between the clever, intellectually and emotionally frustrated sisters holding on to old ways and values and their brother’s encroaching, ruthlessly nouveau wife Natasha (Lois Chimimba, splendidly merciless). And in the very long first half (it’s a three-hour evening) to be honest the ennui is passed on to us, with interest. The play sags, feels dangerously static, and delivers almost none of the dry humour available in the text.
The performances are fine: Ferran’s weary schoolmistress Olga, Pearl Chanda’s sardonic, bored Masha with her growing obsessive love for the stumblebum husband (Elliott Levey, beautiful comic timing) and a sweet Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz) who later moves from romping enthusiasm to despair and final determination with delicate strength.
After the interval , mercifully, in mood and pace it could be a different play: the action of course increases with the fire, the cracking of marriages, Natasha’s increasing horribleness, the duel and the epic drunkenness and disillusion of the old doctor ( Alan Williams, a great treat ), The lighting is still deliberately dim . mainly Anglepoises and the odd candle throughout, until the last outdoor scene , but the play finally starts to crackle with energy and tension, as it should. Natasha’s odd perch overhead , finely lit and still on the stairs, creates a real edge of necessary menace. The last great speeches from the Baron and from Andrey hit home; and there is real shock of pathos in Masha’s desperate clinging to her lover, the unresponsively callous Vershinin, as her husband heroically consoles her. I left happy enough. But goodness, the first scenes badly need more vigour. And a trim.
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